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Tuesday, July 15, 2003

FEAR to Read This Post!

The other day Emily Jones had a post about some dimwit political science professor at Santa Rosa Junior College in California. Said dimwit apparently (reports are contradictory) told his students:

to compose an e- mail to an elected official that included the words "kill the president, kill the president," a school administrator said Wednesday.


Michael Ballou [the dimwit] intended the assignment to be an "experiential exercise that would instill a sense of fear so they would have a better sense of why more people don't participate in the political process," said Doug Garrison, the vice president and executive dean of the Petaluma campus.

One kid actually sent such an email, which brought down the wrath of The Man upon Mr. Ballou's head.

Niles and I discussed this. Niles is a cynical pollyanna, so he thought that the point was to demonstrate why it is more people don't become politicians---because they might get nasty emails.

I had a different idea, which turned out to be correct. Joanne Jacobs points to this story in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, in which all is made clear.

Ballou said the goal of the exercise was to get students to think about what could happen if they did send the e-mail or make such a statement.

"Just the act of saying that and knowing your e-mail could be tapped and your phone listened to, you get a wave of fear over you and you realize we're actually afraid of our own government," he said.

Yes. Just by the simple act of making a death threat to the President you too could become a target of the fascist Police State. Dissent is crushed!

Now, there are contradictory opinions whether the students were actually meant to send an email. Only one student sent one; some thought they were never meant to. However:

At a subsequent class session, Ballou asked if his students had done the assignment, [executive dean Doug] Garrison said.

"A number indicated they thought he was joking," Garrison said. "He said, 'I'm quite serious and want you to fulfill this.'"

As PJ/Maryland says in Joanne's comments (comment #6):

Reading between the lines, this sounds like a very strange assignment. Both news articles use the word "compose"; my take on "composing" an email means to write it, not to actually send it. I'm mystified as to how simply typing a few words into a computer are supposed to "instill fear". ("Did you complete your assignment?" "Yes teacher, I typed 'kill the president' into an unaddressed email in my Outlook Express, and then deleted it." "Good, now tell us about the fear you experienced.")

This sounds like what he meant to me, too. Perhaps his point was that by just having the words "kill the president" on your hard drive, you should feel fear. The NSA robo-sniffers, which sift through all the world's hard drives, will find it---after they've automagically discarded all the "spoiler" text ("atomic bomb explode bin laden chinese anthrax haarp black helicopter area 51") placed on countless Usenet posts and email messages by crafty conspiracy aficianados---and come for you in the middle of the night and you'll never be heard from again. FEEL THE FEAR!

(Just think, if you have read about this story anywhere on-line, you now have the words "kill the president" on your hard drive! Do you feel the fear yet?)

Just to be very clear: I don't think that Ballou ever meant to urge his students to send death threat, let alone urge them to carry out death threats. And, unlike some people, I don't think he's an idiot for using the phrase "kill the president" as an example. Where I do think he's an idiot is that he seems to think that we all naturally fear the US government, and that somehow typing death threats onto the screen is supposed to make us realize that.

There are two depressing facets to this story. The first is that neither the professor or his students seem to be able to grasp the difference between legitimate dissent, and threats:

In a brief interview outside his classroom at the college's Petaluma campus, Ballou called the federal investigation of his assignment "farcical" and the result of a "growing police state."

His students agree:

Before class Wednesday, several students supported Ballou and expressed surprise that the exercise had brought the Secret Service to the campus.

"The point of the assignment was to experience fear of the government," said Andrea Joy of Windsor, adding that she didn't send an e-mail. "Everybody did by just suggesting the assignment. At no point was Michael advocating any violence.

"The reaction really validated his point," Joy said.

Why, it's getting so that you can't make a simple death threat to a public official without Ashcroft's goons marching jack-booted into your house! Dissent is crushed! (Actually, I'll bet that both Ballou and Joy are enjoying the delicious frisson of fear they get from knowing they are dangerous dissenters against the Establishment. The Man is coming down on the People!)

They also don't seem to grasp the difference between saying, and doing. The police didn't come investigate because the NSA X-ray vision satellite read his lips, but because other people made complaints. (In addition to the email, one student---a high school student taking this college course---told his parents, who called the police. Did the kid or the parents misunderstand (or exaggerate) what was said into a real threat? Or maybe both the emailer and the high school kid are informers paid to seek out any whisper of dissent!)

The second depressing point is that this bozo is teaching "Introduction to U.S. Government". I looked for an on-line syllabus for the class, but found nothing. I imagine it looks something like this:

Week 1: Your government: fear it
Week 2: Reasons you should fear the government
Week 3: Fear of the government throughout US history
Week 4: Lab work: feeling fear
Week 5: Analysis of the fear we felt in Week 4
Week 6: Brave anti-government tactics
Week 7: The so-called "Constitution"

Since this is a summer course, there are only seven weeks.

Michael Ballou also runs this pop-up infested Angelfire site, meant to call attention to the plight of adjunct professors.

Now, I don't want to go into it in this post, but this is a legitimate concern. Instead of hiring full-time faculty, many colleges have decided they can save money by hiring several part-timers. The part-timers are paid far below what the regular faculty get for much the same work.

However, Ballou's site badly designed, poorly written, and above all, whiny. He seems to be one of the Perpetually Aggrieved.

Every cloud has a silver lining, though. After his recent little stunt, he probably won't have to worry about being an second-class academic citizen anymore.

UPDATE: I wrote this several days ago and put off posting it because I feared (there's that word again) that perhaps I wasn't getting the whole story, and that there would turn out to be less than meets the eye here. Now, Ballou hisself has replied to Emily in the comments section of her original post! (Emily replies to the reply here.)

Huh. Turns out I needn't have worried. It's every bit as stupid as I had supposed. I like this bit especially:

2. The exercise was not to "instill a sense of fear" as one newspaper reported, but to bring out the fear and paranoia that already exists within each one of us. And it's not fear of Al Qaida or Saddam. It's fear of our own government surveillance and of each other. Next we examine who benefits from this state of insecurity and what can be done about it. It's a graphic exercise that has worked well in the past. My class assignment brings out the fear each of us is already carrying around and then discusses how people or institutions capitalize on that baggage. It was not about pulling fire alarms just to see if the fire trucks appear.

Well, if a person doesn't feel fear and paranoia of the government, and you seek to bring it out, I'd say that was a pretty good definition of "instill". I still don't know why I'm supposed to fear simply by typing "kill the president" on my computer. Is it the death threat I'm supposed to worry about? Or is it political? If I typed "impeach the president", would that make me fear too? How am I supposed to feel fear if no one knows what I've typed?

The rest of his very long answer (there are ten points!) is incoherent and laden with his own intellectual and psychological baggage. Please don't take my word for it, but go over to Emily's and see for yourself.

Hmmm...I could interpret this to mean that Michael Ballou is spying on us, seeing how he showed up on Emily's site and all. Should I feel fear?